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Monday, December 09, 2013 

The system we deserve.

There are perhaps only two topics in politics more likely to bring out the bores than the perennial issue of how much our glorious elected representatives are paid.  The first, of course, is immigration where a certain kind of dullard insists on arguing that you couldn't even broach the subject for decades lest you be called a racist, despite the debate having been going on for over 40 years now (we'll quickly brush over how many objections to immigration during that time most certainly were couched in stereotypes and irrational fear, and how there's a difference between calling someone out for being racist and closing debate down completely), while a close second is those who just can't discuss foreign policy without bringing Iraq into it in some way and how they were completely right and everyone else was wrong.

In a way, the bile thrown at MPs illustrates how as jobs go, it's hardly the first one most would choose.  The hours are long; you have to deal with the public, plenty of whom will detest you purely on the grounds of the party you represent; if your constituency is outside London then you'll have to do a lot of travelling, and if you happen not to have copious resources at your disposal, claiming for a flat in the capital won't go down well; if you happen to be of independent mind, then your career opportunities are severely limited as complete loyalty to the current party line is required for you to become so much as a parliamentary private secretary, or a shadow junior minister; and there's also nowhere to hide.  Make a duff speech, or not quite measure up to Paxman test, and your ignominy is now recorded for all time.  This said, it's not all bad: your holidays fall roughly in line with those during the school year, so you get hell of a lot more than that required by law; job satisfaction can be high; and getting things done locally in your constituency will almost certainly mean more than anything that happens at parliament itself.

Let's be honest, though.  Pay has never measured proper, exhausting hard work, and it never will.  The manual worker picking vegetables gets a relative pittance, as does the average market stall trader and (some) farmers, while a director on the board of a medium sized company can earn more for 12 days' work than the former do for a year's worth of labour.  £66,000 a year is almost exactly 3 times the average wage, and a hell of a lot of people would rip their MPs' arm off for that sort of money.  As we are told repeatedly, the way the system used to work was that the basic salary was kept low on the proviso that you could claim either as little or as much as you wanted on expenses.  When it turned out that was exactly what the more egregious had done, we ended up with the independent body (mostly made up of ex-public sector execs) now proposing the 11% pay rise, which as the more astute have noticed, is in fact a 9% rise as it doesn't happen until 2015.  The deal overall also includes further changes to pensions, and so in fact would be cost neutral.  The previous proposals would have cost a further £500,000.

When you're imposing austerity on both the public sector and those down on their luck however, with pay in general not keeping pace with inflation, it's all but impossible to say MPs have been hard done by.  The job might not be either that terrible or that great, but it's hard to argue it's comparable with the work or stress involved with being either a headteacher or GP, as some MPs have.  Pay for ministers and cabinet ministers is higher, so with greater responsibility and power comes greater reward.  The bitterness, such as there is, mostly comes from those who see the pay of council chief executives which with benefits is sometimes above that the prime minister receives, but the problem there is down to how there isn't the same level of public awareness and pressure to keep localincreases down.

IPSA's recommendation isn't outrageous, it's that it simply isn't acceptable now.  Instead of pencilling in the increase for 2015, it should instead rise towards the proposed level in increments once the pay freeze on the public sector and benefits has been lifted.  If nothing else, this might just encourage politicians to think before they slap another real terms cut on those who can least afford it, or to at least oppose Osborne's setting of supposed traps for Labour.  Fundamentally, it's not the overall wage that's the issue, it's how we go about encouraging those with more to offer than the current lot to enter politics.  On that score, it's not about the money, it's about the cynicism that now surrounds and inhibits our democracy (which I'm most definitely a part of), and the party system that goes hand in hand with it.  Neither seem likely to be toned down or reformed any time soon.

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